The Netherlands 1853 – France 1890
Van Gogh's bedroom at Arles
[Le chambre de van Gogh à Arles] 1889
oil on canvas
canvas 57.5 (h) x 74.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Transferred in application of the Peace Treaty with Japan 1959
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
After frantically completing five canvases in Arles in one week during 1888—depicting the gardens, roads, railway bridges and horse-drawn carriages in locations close to his house—van Gogh was exhausted. In a letter accompanied by a small sketch which has been dated to 16 October 1888, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the next canvas he intended to paint:
This time it’s just simply my bedroom, only here colour is to do everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things, is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.
The walls are pale violet. The floor is of red tiles.
The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows very light greenish-citron.
The coverlet scarlet. The window green.
The toilet table orange, the basin blue.
The doors lilac.
And that is all—there is nothing in this room with its closed shutters.
The broad lines of the furniture again must express inviolable rest. Portraits on the walls, and a mirror and a towel and some clothes.
The frame—as there is no white in the picture— will be white.1
In his state of fatigue, van Gogh had chosen to depict his bedroom in the Yellow House, where he rented four rooms for himself and for Gauguin—in anticipation of the artist’s arrival, and his dream of establishing an artists’ ‘Studio of the South’. The following day Vincent wrote to Gauguin, noting that ‘I enormously enjoyed doing this interior of nothing at all. Of a simplicity à la Seurat’; and he explained his desire ‘to express absolute restfulness’.2
The image of his own room remained a favourite for van Gogh. He later recorded: ‘When I saw my canvases again after my illness the one that seemed the best to me was the “Bedroom”.’3 The artist made two further versions—including the canvas shown here.
The bedroom is an awkward shape (the outside wall with the open window is built at an angle) but van Gogh’s style of painting it adds to the sense of unease—the room’s details suggest something less than the ‘restful’ air that the artist would have us see.4 The room’s emptiness, the sweeping lines of the floor and the outline of the bed, the tilting chairs, tables and paintings on the wall, including his portrait, all evoke the artist’s own personality—a ‘self-portrait’ capturing something of van Gogh’s spirit without the presence of the sitter. Despite this, a certain haunting undercurrent, and sense of loneliness, seem to pervade the painting.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Letter 554, viewed 28 August 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/683_V-T_554.pdf.
- 17 October 1888, letter B22, viewed 28 August 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/684_V-B_B22.pdf.
- Letter from van Gogh to Theo, Arles, 23 January 1889, letter 573, viewed 28 August 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/731_V-T_573.pdf.
- Roland Pickvance, in Van Gogh in Arles, New York: the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1984 p. 191, provides a plan of the bedroom with this external slanting wall and argues that this accounts for the dramatic distortion in the room.